Elisha Coles

A Practical Discourse On God’s Sovereignty

This high and tremendous attribute, being an ocean that has neither bank nor bottom, may not lightly be launched into by any, though ever so strongly built and well-manned, (much less by so weak a vessel,) without a divine compass, and an anchor within the veil. That the author of this Discourse came into it, was not of choice or designment, but of course and emergent necessity. Could he have found another basis to repose that doctrine upon, (which was, at first, his only intended subject,) he had not touched upon this: but apparently to him, no ground would bear the weight of election, but that of sovereignty; and there it fixed as on a rock; all the lines of its whole circumference running there, and resting there, as in their centre, where also the scriptures hath laid it, Rom. 9; Eph. 1, &c. And, however it be a foundation disallowed of men, every observing Christian shall find, that, without acknowledging divine sovereignty for the original, supreme, and unaccountable Disposer of persons and things, he shall want a principal means of supporting his faith, and quieting his understanding, in the course of common providences; much more, of those mysterious occurrences and supernatural truths, which he is eternally concerned about.

In this preface I shall treat first of God’s sovereignty, and then of his righteousness, as its natural adjunct. The sum of the first lies in this proposition, namely:—

“That the great God, blessed for ever, hath an absolute power and right of dominion over his creatures, to dispose and determine of them as seemeth him good.”

That there is such a power, and that this power belongs to God, no other reason needs be assigned, but that “He is God, and there is none besides him:” there can be no more, because, 1. There can be but one Infinite; for such a Being fills heaven and earth; and so no place or room for another. 2. There can be but one Omnipotent; for he that is such hath all others under his feet: besides, where one can do all, more would be impertinent. 3. There can be but one Supreme; supreme power may reside in many; (as in mixed monarchies and commonwealths;) but as lawmakers and supreme, they are but one. 4. There can be but one first cause, from which all beings else derive their original: and that is this blessed One we are speaking of: “Of whom and for whom are all things,” 1 Cor. 8:6. And if he be the author of all, he needs must have a sovereign right and power to determine all, both as to their being, order, efficacy, and end.

That “sovereign power belongs to God,” is a truth so natural and obvious to reason, that other proof seems as needless as that the sun is the fountain of light; nor shall I suppose that any who will read this discourse can so far forget themselves to be creatures, as to seek a proof of their Creator’s sovereignty; “the things that are seen so loudly proclaiming his eternal power and Godhead.” But, since, with our easy admitting the notion, it is none of the smallest difficulties to own it in our practice, and bear ourselves answerably towards him; since, also, so huge a weight is borne on the shoulders of this divine attribute, and our souls are so highly concerned in the interest and influence of it; it needs must be our duty, and well worthy our time, to look over the instances of it, and to mark and consider them well, as things greatly importing our instruction, whereby we may know something of the greatness of that God in whose hands our souls are; as also of our infinite distance from him, and nothingness to him; and so, with the more humbleness of mind and self-abasement, as also with the more faith, and creature-like affiance, submit unto him, and bear ourselves upon him. To this end the scriptures have enrolled several ensigns of sovereignty; by which, as by so many foot steps, we are led to the absolute will and power of God, as the supreme cause and disposer of all.

The great act of sovereignty was God’s decree for making the world; and of doing, or permitting to be done, whatever should be in it, to the folding of it up. The heavens and the earth, and all the hosts of them, as yet had no being; it was at his pleasure whether he would make them or not; and if he would, what being he would give them,—to what end, and how that end should be accomplished. And that these were all ascertained by the decree, is evident; for “known unto God were all his works,” which he would do in time, “from the beginning of the world,” Acts 15:18. The scheme and substance whereof (and I hope without intrusion) may be drawn to this effect, that the great God, most high and holy, being infinitely good, happy, and blessed in himself, was also infinitely prompt and well pleased to communicate thereof to others; to which end he designed to raise up creatures, angels and men; that, for the manifestation of his sovereignty, he would confirm a certain number of those angels in their primitive state, leaving the rest to themselves, who, falling from that state, should be cast down, and “reserved in chains of darkness unto the judgment of the great day;” that, in this lower world, he would set up the first man to be the head and representative of all that should come of him; that this single person should be created in the image of God, fit to en joy communion with him, and endued with power to abide therein; that to manifest the weakness of creatures, and their perpetual dependence upon God, he would thus leave him to his first stock, with a perfect freedom of will, to retain or lose, at his own choice; but not without setting be fore him the happiness or ruin that would certainly follow his well or ill-using that freedom; and, being so left, the fallen angel, tempting him to disobedience, and also prevailing, both himself and all his posterity should, by this revolt, fall under the curse; that, for the declaration of his sovereign grace, he would, and accordingly did, choose a certain number of Adam’s posterity, (in themselves all alike depraved and lost,) and ordain them to eternal life; and to make known the power of his wrath, and his just displeasure against sin, he would leave the rest in that state of perdition they would bring themselves into; that of these vessels of wrath, Satan himself, whom they choose to follow, should be the head and ruler; as also, over them that were elected, for a time, namely, until the Messiah, their true and proper head, and into whom he had chosen them, should rescue them out of his power; that, to this end, (and that he might be known to be just, as well as merciful, in justifying of them,) the Son of God should take on him the place of a second Adam, and come into the world with a human body; in which he should fulfil all righteousness, and by the infinite virtue and merit of his death should satisfy the law in all its demands, destroy the devil, dissolve his works, and reconcile the elect unto God; that he should be raised again from the dead, and invested with all power befitting the Captain of their salvation; that so he might effectually minister to them whatever should be requisite for bringing his sons to glory. This I take to be the sum of God’s decree, the great ensign or standard-royal of sovereignty, whereof all the other arc effects or consequents, and subordinate thereto.

The first visible ensign of sovereignty was creation, or God’s giving the world an actual existence in time, according to his decree from everlasting; bringing that huge, yet void and formless, mass at first out of nothing; and then, this glorious fabric out of that confusion; his hanging the earth upon nothing; his assigning to every sort of creatures such form and station, order, use, and efficacy, and impressing on them such laws and instincts of nature, as seemed him good; but all in a regular subserviency to the good of the whole, which also was effected by His word. What he would was done with that immediate suddenness, as if the things themselves had proceeded with his breath, Psalm 33:9. The instant production of light, Gen. 1:3, 9; the waters separating from the other elements, and gathering into a body, and their going up and down to the place he had founded for them, Psalm 104:8; with many others, of which ye have an index in the first of Genesis, are witnesses of it; as also his so fixing this establishment, that they continue this day according to that ordinance, Psalm 119:91.

Consequent to this, as a second ensign of sovereignty, is that universal providence by which the creation is sustained, and all inferior causes guided to their designed end; and this notwithstanding all supposable accidents which might possibly happen to obstruct or divert them. And that the creatures have at times deviated from their first rules and settlement, is no derogation to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but rather an illustration of it; as showing that the creatures are still in his hand, as clay in the potter’s. Hence we find their innate propensions to be sometimes suspended; otherwhiles acted beyond; and at times again quite contrary to the law of nature; and this, not casually, nor by the force of created powers, nor yet for any private or self-concern, but to serve some special and superior end, which their Lord had to be done. To instance a few; and,

1. Of creatures without life; as the windows of heaven opening, and the fountains of the great deep breaking up, notwithstanding the firmament above, and the bounds beneath, to drown the world of ungodly men, Gen. 7;11; the Red Sea’s dividing and standing up as a wall, to make way for his people’s escape, Exod. 14:22; the sun and moon’s standing still till they were avenged on their enemies, Joshua 10:13; the stars to the same end fighting against Sisera, Judges 5:20; the sun’s going back in Ahaz’s dial to help Hezekiah’s faith, 2 Kings 20:11; the fiery furnace devouring those at a distance who cast in those holy confessors, and not so much as touching them that were cast into it, Dan. 3:22, 27; the winds and the seas, which are such impetuous, and, one would think, even lawless, creatures, they stir not, nor breathe, but to fulfil his word, Psalm 148:8; Mark 4:39, 41.

2. Of living creatures that have not the use of reason: how readily went they by pairs into Noah’s ark at God’s appointment! Gen. 7;9. The frogs, lice, locusts, &c., with what supernatural boldness did they assault and perplex the Egyptians, that the magicians themselves confessed the finger of God was in it, Exodus 8:19; and as strangely withdrew when their work was done! verse 13. Witnessed also by the dumb ass’s reproving the prophet’s madness, 2 Peter 2:15; the lion’s killing the seduced prophet for breaking God’s command, yet not eating the carcass, nor tearing his ass, 1 Kings 8:26, 28; ravenous birds bringing Elijah food in his solitary condition, 1 Kings 17:6; the whale’s receiving Jonah, and at God’s command casting him on dry land without harm, Jonah 1:17; 2:10: the lions also not hurting Daniel in their den, yet greedily devouring his accusers, Dan. 6;22, 24. It must needs be a sovereign power which thus intends, restrains, inverts the course of nature at his will.

Thirdly. Another ensign, asserting God’s supremacy and rightful dominion, is the general vote and subscription of men, especially the most knowing, and such as best understand him. 1. They own it in their practice or actions: Abel offers the firstlings of his flock to God, Gen. 4;4. Abraham leaves his native country at God’s command, to go “ he knew not whither,” Gen. 7;4. He also offers his only and innocent son Isaac, in whose life and “posterity all nations were to be blessed,” Gen. 22:2, 10. Job, when stripped of all, falls down and worships, Job 1:21. When Aaron’s two sons were destroyed by fire from heaven, he held his peace, Lev. 10:2, 3. Eli, when that tingling sentence was denounced against his house, said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good,” 1 Sam. 3:18. David, when driven from God’s sanctuary, and his throne usurped by Absalom, said, “Behold, here I am, let him do to me as seemeth good to him,” 2 Sam. 15:26. The men of Nineveh, their destruction was pronounced peremptorily, of which they had no promise of remission, and consequently no visible ground of hope; yet “they believed God, fasted, lay in sackcloth, and turned from their evil way,” Jonah  3:5, 8:2. They likewise own it in their confessions and attestations: Melchizedek and Abraham do both style him, “the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth,” Gen. 14:19, 22. Job professeth, that though he were righteous, yet if God will contend with him, “he will not answer, but make supplication to his Judge,” Job 9:15. “The Lord hath made all things for himself,” Prov. 16:4. “For his pleasure they are and were created,” Rev. 4:11. “ We are the clay, and thou our Potter,” Isa. 64:8. “He worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” Eph. 1:11. “ He giveth not account of any of his matters,” Job 33:13. “In his hand is the soul of every living thing,” Job 12:10. “ He is the God of the spirits of all flesh,” Num. 16: 22. “All nations before him are less than nothing and vanity,” Isa. 40:17. “ He stills the tumult of the people,” Psalm 45:7. “If it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it,” Acts 5:39. “The counsel of the Lord, that shall stand,” Prov. 19:21; Psalms 33:11. “ The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord,” Prov. 16:33. “ The kingdom is the Lord’s; and he is governor among the nations,” Psalm 22:28. Nebuchadnezzar, that proud and potent monarch, whose “greatness reached unto heaven, and his dominion to the end of the earth; all nations trembled before him; whom he would, he slew; and whom he would, he kept alive; who said in his heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will be like the Most High; and who is that God that shall deliver out of my hand ? ”Yet even he, this child of pride, is made to confess One higher than himself, and to bow before Him, proclaiming to the world, that “the most High doth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? and those that walk in pride he is able to abase,” Dan. 4:22 ; 5:19; 3:15; 4:34—37; Isa. 14:13, 14. It might further be instanced in Cain, Pharaoh, Balaam, and other wicked men, how they were even constrained to acknowledge the sovereignty of God; as appears by comparing Exod. 5:2, with 9:27, 28, and Num. 22:18; Darius also in Dan. 6:26—28.

Fourthly. Another evidence, or witness, we have from the angels who are “great in power;” notwithstanding which, they do perfectly own and submit to the sovereignty of God. Where subjects are numerous, wise and magnanimous, and withal perfectly submissive to the will of their Lord, it argues their Lord is an absolute sovereign; and such subjects are the angels. 1. The elect or good angels: these show it by their ready submission to any service their Lord is pleased to appoint them. They are his intelligencers in this lower world, Zech. 6:5—7; Job 2:1: not that he needs their advices, but to show a little of the majesty of his kingdom. They are also his messengers; he sends them on his errands, to negotiate his affairs among men, and to reveal his purposes both concerning his church and the world, Dan. 2:19: 8:13, 16; 10:21; 11; Ezek. 1:4. They are his chariots, Psalm 68:17; his reapers, Matt. 13:39, 49; the executioners of his judgments, 2 Sam. 24:16; 2 Kings 19:35; and Christ’s attendants at his coming, Matt. 25:31.

2. The apostate angels or wicked spirits: though the testimony we have from these is not from love or good will, yet it is as great an evidence of God’s sovereignty as any other; in that, being enemies to God, proud and imperious, they are yet over-awed and compelled to submit. And hence it was that the devil dared not to answer again, when that fatal sentence was pronounced upon him for seducing our first parents, Gen. 3:15. We have him also presenting himself before the Lord, to give account of his actions; and touch Job, or any thing he had, he durst not without leave from God, nor vary a jot from the rule prescribed him, Job 2:1, 6.  In the evangelists are many instances of Christ’s commanding them forth with authority; yea, a whole legion at once, Luke 8:30, 33. Nor could they so much as enter into the swine without his leave, Mark 5:12. And, which is more, they were subject to the apostles, who had but a delegated or second-hand power committed to them, Luke 10:17. 

Fifthly. We have the Lord himself asserting his sovereign prerogative. In how lofty a style, and with what imperial authority, doth he utter himself to Pharaoh!—“And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee my power,” Exod. 9:16. The apostle quotes the place to prove that God may raise up men, and appoint them to what use and service he will, Rom 9:17. “Who hath made the seeing or the blind? have not I, the Lord?” Exod. 4:6, 11. “I kill, and I make alive,” Deut. 32:39. “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” Exod. 33:19. “ I am the first, and I am the last, and besides me there is no God; and who as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order before me? since I appointed the ancient people, and the things that are coming and shall come,” Isa. 44:6, 7. “My counsel shall stand; I will do all my pleasure,” Isa. 46:10. “My word shall accomplish that which I please; it shall prosper in the thing whereto I send it,” Isa. 55:11. “And if the prophet be deceived, I the Lord have deceived that prophet and I will destroy him,” Ezek. 14:9. A remarkable story is that of the lying spirit, and the effectual commission he had from God to persuade, and also to prevail, 1 Kings 22. How should we tremble before God at the hearing of such a word! But yet, I do not reckon the last two as acts of pure sovereignty, but rather of his justice; as punishing one sin by leaving to another; according to that in Rom. 1:21, 28: “Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, nor liked to retain him in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.” And yet there is here an impression of sovereignty, in that he deals not so with all, who are alike obnoxious to it.

Sixthly. Another ensign of sovereignty is formed of those several acts and institutes, which cannot be derived (at least not so immediately) from any other attribute as that of sovereignty. I shall instance a few, namely: the putting of man’s everlasting condition upon his eating or non-eating the fruit of such a tree, Gen. 2:17: in not destroying Adam presently upon his disobedience; and in the free promise of a Saviour, unsought unto for it, Gen. 3:15: in protecting Cain, when he had forfeited his life to justice, Gen. 4:15: in preserving Ham from the deluge, though as wicked as those that perished, Gen. 7:13: in ordering the blessing to Jacob, who sought it unduly; and denying it to Esau, who sought it diligently, and to whom it belonged of natural right, Gen. 27:19, 34, 38: in the sudden turning of Esau’s heart to love Jacob whom he had inveterately hated and came with full purpose to destroy him; yet in a moment his heart is melted, he weeps on his neck, and offers himself and soldiers to be his convoy, Gen. 27:41; 32:6; 33:4, 12: in causing a fear to fall on the Amorites, that they did not pursue Jacob, when highly provoked by his sons’ cruelty on the men of Shechem, Gen. 35:5: in sending a message of peace to Sihon, whom he had determined to destroy; and, to that end, had hardened his spirit, and made him obstinate, Deut. 2:26: in causing those nations to destroy, one another, who came leagued to destroy his people, 2 Chron. 20:1, 22, 23: in destroying Esau’s mount irreparably, and for ever; whereas Israel, whose land also is full of sin, shall not be forsaken, Obad. 9:16, 18, 21; Mal. 1:4: especially, considering that these were the several effects of his loving the one, and hating the other, and that “before they had done either good or evil,” Mal. 1:2, 3; Rom. 9:11, 13: in sending Ezekiel to a rebellious house that “would not hear;” and not sending him to them that would, Ezek. 3:6, 7; Mat. 11:21: in hiding the mysteries of his kingdom “from the wise and prudent, and revealing them unto babes,” Matt. 11:25; and speaking in parables to the multitude, “ lest they should be converted.” Mark 4:11, 12; Acts 28:26, 27.

It is further manifest, by the Lord’s punishing sometimes lesser trespasses, and that severely, and in his own; while winking at those of a greater magnitude in other men. Moses is excluded Canaan for a hasty word, though smartly provoked, Deut. 32:51, 52; when Jonah is but mildly reproved for passionately expostulating, Jonah 4. Uzzah dies for but touching the ark, 1 Chron. 8:9, 10; when the Philistines bore it away in triumph, 1 Sam. 5:1; Hezekiah but shows the ambassadors from Babylon his house and treasures; and for this his sons and all must go into captivity, 2 Kings 20:13, 17. Not that any sin is little in itself, or punished beyond its demerit; but the Lord is pleased thus to do, partly to show his displeasure against sin, and that he will not bear with it even in those that are dearest to him; but partly also, if not chiefly, in such like cases to set forth his sovereign greatness, and the uncontrollableness of his matters, Job 33:13. The seventy-third Psalm is full to the same purpose. That also of Job, and the manner of God’s dealings with him, is much to be remarked: he had lived a very strict and holy life; “not a man like Job in all the earth;” the Lord himself seems to glory in him; unto which all outward blessings were promised, and freedom from such sufferings; and when bereft of all, “held fast his integrity, Job 1:8; 2:3; yet the Lord goes on to afflict him, and leaves him wholly (saving his life) in Satan’s power. Had he been a wicked man, as his friends objected, those sufferings had evidenced the justice of God, but now, his sovereignty, which also seems to be intended by that speech of God to Satan, “Thou movedst me against him, to destroy him with out a cause.”

Seventhly. There arc yet other footsteps of sovereignty, by which that high and holy attribute is farther illustrated to us; as, namely, the Lord’s overruling the designs and actions of men to bring his own counsels to pass; albeit improper in their own nature, yea, disservient thereto, and sometimes by men contrived on purpose to prevent them. The project of building Babel’s tower, to keep that rebellious rout together, it turned to their utter dispersion, Gen. 11:4, 8. Jacob’s dissimulation and palpable abuse of his father’s infirmity, it proved a means to obtain his blessing, and that contrary to his settled intendment, Gen. 27:18—29. Laban dealt hardly with Jacob, to keep him low, and to serve himself of him; but God takes occasion thence to give him Laban’s substance, and that by Laban’s consent and agreement, Gen. 29. To obviate Joseph’s dreams, his brethren sell him into Egypt; and, by this means, the Lord keeps them all alive, and accomplishes that honour to Joseph which they setly intended to prevent, Gen. 37:9, 20, 28; 41:40; 42:6; 50:18, 20. Pharaoh lays insuperable burdens on the people to diminish them, and the Lord multiplies them under it: “The more they were oppressed, the faster they grew,” Exod. 1:12. Moses, a keeper of sheep, a man slow of speech, and one that had no mind to the work, Exod. 4:10, 13, yet he shall be God’s ambassador to Pharaoh, the proudest and most inflexible monarch upon earth, and bring Israel out of bondage. And who shall be his commander in chief, to deliver his people from their potent oppressors, but Deborah, a woman? Judges 4:9; at another time, Gideon, “whose family was poor in Manasseh, and he the least in his father’s house?” Judges 6:15. And though he had a numerous and powerful enemy to deal with, and, one would think, had need of all the hands he could make to fight them, yet his army of two and thirty thousand must be reduced to three hundred men, and they to have no other arms but trumpets and lamps in their pitchers; and by these he delivers them from that huge host, Judges 7:3, 6, 7. And much like unto this was Shamgar’s killing six hundred men with an ox-goad, Judges 3:31; and Samson, a thousand with a jaw-bone of an ass, Judges 15:15. It may farther be traced in his producing contrary effects by the same cause; and then, again, the Bame effects by causes contrary, Exod. 4:6, 7. So Daniel and his fellows, they had a fairer countenance with pulse and water, than those who ate of the king’s own provision, Dan. 1:15. It is further evidenced, by his causing the wrath of man to turn to his praise; which, in the nature and tendency of it, is to destroy them that praise Him; Psalm 76:10; by his catching the wise in their own craftiness, and causing them to fall by their own devices, Job 5:12, 13; Psalm 5:10: witness Ahab, 1 Kings 22:20, 22, and Haman, Esther 7:10. The persecution of the saints at Jerusalem was designed to suppress the doctrine of Christ; which yet was thereby dispersed into many countries, and caused to grow mightily, Acts 8:1, 4. So the preacher’s imprisonment proved to the furtherance of the gospel, Phil, 1:12, 14. And since the scriptures were finished, human stories, and our own observation, do abundantly prove the matter in hand. Do but consider how it prevailed to the dethroning of Satan, and turning the world upside down; and this by means the weakest and most unlikely to reason, that could be pitched upon; not the sword and spear, the bow and battle-axe, the barbed horse, and the martial heroes of the earth, but by the bare word of God: and this, not by the hand of the learned scribes and pharisees, lawyers, doctors, poets, philosophers; but by poor illiterate fishermen, carpenters, publicans, tent-makers. And who shall be the subjects and party militant of this never to be conquered kingdom? Not “the wise and prudent, mighty and noble, but babes, the poor, weak, base, despised, and things that are not; and by these he confounds the things that are,” 1 Cor. 1:27. And by what arm? “Patience, and faith in the blood of the Lamb,” Rev. 12:11; 14:12.

Consider, also, the constant persecution of the church, and that by men of all sorts, especially those of greatest power and policy; the barbarous devastations that have been made upon it, and with what implacable enmity the world is edged against it, and that yet it stands invincible, and is still getting ground: ye cannot but acknowledge the evident footsteps of sovereign power; “that the Most High beareth rule over all,” Dan. 4:25, 26, and as “for the counsels of the wise, he turneth them backward,” Isa. 44:25.

Eighthly. An especial ray of this glorious power shines forth in God’s actual predominating and subduing the spirits of men, in calling and converting whom he will. One would think that a rational being should better discern his own interests; and out of choice comply with the will of his Maker, as who must needs best know what is best for his creature, and who in reason can have no other design upon him but his own good: but we find it otherwise; the best things degenerated turn the worst and are hardliest reduced. Of all creatures, man fallen doth most avert, impugn and resist, when God would turn him out of his natural course; notwithstanding the sorest of evils do attend his present state, and all desirable happiness would apparently follow his change; yet, so wedded he is to his lusts, and headstrong in his own will, that none of these things move him; but on he goes, and on he will, yea, though an incensed angel with a drawn sword should withstand him. To crush them to nothing, or break them in pieces, were easily effected; a little of divine power would do that: but to humble a proud and lofty spirit; to soften and melt an obdurate heart; to tame, meeken, and reconcile a sanguinary rebel; to change the very inwards of one habituated in sin and enmity against God, and make him pliable to divine impressions:—this highly proclaims the exceeding greatness of his power; it is a glorious trophy of divine sovereignty: which is, also, farther conspicuous, and greatly illustrated, in maintaining the work begun, and bearing it on through all oppositions; for there needs the same almightiness of power to preserve the new creation, as at first to raise it; the way of God being altogether upwards and supernatural, there is a great proneness in creatures to revolt from it, like a rolling stone on the steep of a hill. The remains of old nature would, torrent-like, bear down all, if sovereign power did not bar up the one, and sustain the other. For a spark of divine nature to live in the breast of a lapsed creature is as great a miracle, and as high an effect of sovereign power, as all the instances before enumerated, and more.

Ninthly. The sovereignty of God proclaims itself with a yet more astonishing glory, in his eternal disposure of men’s everlasting condition. To show, or not to show, mercy to persons equally dignified, or rather indignified, in themselves; to make of the same lump one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour, is the sublimest act, and most apparent demonstration, of sovereign power concerning men. The reason of which, and that to satisfaction, might have been given, and would, had it befitted the greatness of God or the trust and reverence we owe to him: but for the present he is pleased to give none other but that of his right: he may do what he will with his own, Matt. 20:15; Rom. 9:18.

Lastly. Most transcendently glorious, and for ever adorable, is the sovereignty of God, in his ordaining the man Jesus, “who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners,” and was also united to the second person, “to make his soul an offering for sin.” That the Lord of glory should be made sin, and a curse; that was such a tremendous act of divine sovereignty, as never shall be paralleled, and should, therefore, for ever seal up our lips from replying against God, about his disposing of sinful worms; which thing, whenever we hear or think upon, we should put our mouths in the dust.

Before I come to the inferences, I would add a caution or two, to prevent those sinister deductions which our deceitful hearts may be ready to draw from this sovereign truth.

Caution I.—See that you make not God the author of sin, by charging his sacred decree with men’s miscarriages, as if that were the cause or occasion of them; which we are sure it is not, nor can be, any more than the sun can be the cause of darkness. Be it always remembered, that the Lord’s rejecting of men puts nothing of evil into them, nor necessitates the will; it only leaves them to their own ways, which they freely choose: yet banking them in, and stopping them up, as he did the fountains of the great deep, lest they deluge the world with sin.

Caution II.—Go not about to palliate, nor think to extenuate, your sin, by arguments fetched from God’s decree. That sin of the Jews in “crucifying the Lord of glory” was in no wise lessened because the counsel of God had determined the thing to be done. For they perpetrated it with wicked hands. Nor is men’s unbelief ever the less culpable, from God’s eternal disposement of their conditions; for it is not upon that consideration that they stumble at the word, or turn the deaf ear to it, or resist it; but from their own natural blindness and enmity against it.

And so I come to the inferences of this greatly important doctrine: and,

First.—From the scriptures so copiously holding it forth, I infer, that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is a very teaching doctrine, and full of instruction; and, consequently, that it is both a duty, and much for our profit, to be well acquainted with it. And great confidence I have, that the farther ye go in an humble, fiducial disquisition and contemplation of it, the clearer will be the reason thereof, and the more usefulness will still appear to be in it. Let reason but keep its own place; that is, let it go by the rules of right reason; and nothing will be more consonant thereto, than that “the Most High should bear rule over all, and do according to his will;” and that men, who are atoms of clay animated by his breath, should own him for their sovereign Lord, and, accordingly, submit to him; yea, though so it were that our own personal welfare were not concerned in it, it will be of singular use and moment to us in the whole of our lives. Nothing like this will allay those carnal reasonings which are so unreasonably prone to put in their verdict of spiritual things; which yet carnal reason hath no cognizance of, and will, indeed, be silenced by nothing else: the apostle, therefore, thinks them not worthy a further reply, whose captious inquiries the sovereignty of God will not satisfy, Rom. 9:19—21. O that the glory of this high attribute might hide pride from men.

A second inference, which naturally flows from this doctrine, is that of the Psalmist: “O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker,” Psalm 95:6: let us give him the glory of this great attribute, by a real and practical owning that indispensable bond of obedience which it lays upon every creature: we are highly obliged by it, both in point of subjection and in point of faith.

1. In point of subjection, to his laws, ordinances, providences.

(1.) For the laws of God, and his appointments; these we are to attend, observe, obey: I cannot say, “For the Lord hath need of them:” for neither can our righteousness profit him, nor our wickedness impair him, Job 22:2, 3; 34:9: “He is the Lord thy God, and worship thou him,” Psalm 15:11. This is that strong reason by which he hath backed both commands and prohibitions: “I am the Lord thy God,” Exod. 20:2. Thou shalt do thus, and thus thou shalt not do: “I am the Lord;” this he sets in the front of all, and with this he closeth the rear, and guards them on every side. Moses brings it in as a convincing reason why we should love God with our whole heart, and keep his commandments, namely, because he is the Lord, and he only, Deut. 6:4. No one, therefore, may pretend to a right of giving laws to men, or to an interest in their love and obedience, save with respect to God, and the authority they have from him. And though he sometimes is pleased, (and it is a great condescension in the great God,) by arguments taken from our own good, to draw us to obedience; (“Do it, for it is your life,” Deut. 32:47;) yet, in our spirits, that of his sovereign glory should have the preference. To cast out Ishmael, was a thing grievous to Abraham; but being commanded of God, he debates it not, nor delays to do it. Therefore, hold on your way, though never so great obscurity be upon it at present; mind your duty in the midst of discouragements; go, as Peter, who, though he had laboured all night and caught nothing, yet says, “ Master, at thy command I will let down the net again,” Luke 5:5.

(2.) Be subject to his ordinances. If he pleased to command the using such means as have no natural virtue towards such an effect, as in Moses stretching his hand over the sea, and smiting the rock with his rod; so water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s supper: presume not to say, “What is there in these?” Godliness is a mystery, which only faith can understand; there is no divine institution but hath meat in it that you know not of, which, if rightly used, will speak for itself. If he please to make clay of dust and spittle, contemn it not, but submit to his will and way, and be thankful for thy cure. Samson’s hair was an ordinance to him; which when he slighted, the Spirit of God left him, and he became as other men, and recovered not until it was grown again, Judges 13:5; 16:19, 22.

(3.) As touching the providences of God, observe them, and submit to them. Look not on them as empty things; the least may yield you instruction, as also the most unlikely: “Out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness;” though the thing be a riddle to a heart uncircumcised, plough with his heifer, and ye shall find it. Neither look on them as things impertinent, but say rather, “‘Is there not a cause,’ though I see it not ? The Lord does nothing in vain.” Neither yet look on them as things contingent; a sparrow falls not without his will, and “ the hairs of your head are all numbered,” Matt. 10:29, 30. David “was dumb, and opened not his mouth;” why? “Because thou, Lord, didst it,” Psalm 39:9. And Shimei’s cursing he bears patiently on the same account: “The Lord hath bidden him,” 2 Sam. 16:10, 11.

There may be such a mixture and confusion of things, and your expectations so delayed and frustrated, that your froward, untamed heart may be ready to wrangle it out, “Why falls it alike to all ? why to the just according to the work of the wicked; and to the wicked according to the work of the righteous?” Eceles. 8:14; “or, why one event to them both?” This is not to inquire wisely; you should rather conclude, “The Lord hath need of them;” that is he hath occasion to use such a providence to fulfil a word or purpose; and that of greater importance than to satisfy your private concern, or present expectation. If you would cast so as to lie by your mark, this attribute of sovereignty gives you the best ground. Search and observe as much as you will, so you take faith along with you, without which ye can do nothing warrantably. Faith is a sworn officer to the great King, and has a key for every lock that is fit to be opened; it forces nothing; but where it cannot enter, it stays without, and waits a better season. Let faith also be chief speaker in all your debates; and then the result will be, that carnal reason and present sense (though very tenacious and stubborn) shall yield the cause, and let you go.

The sum of all is this, that though you be not conscious to yourself of any particular cause of miscarriage, besides what is common to men, which was the case with Job, “lay your hand upon your mouth,” as Job did, Job 40:4. “ The Most High doeth according to his will;” this even the proudest of kings acknowledged, “when his understanding returned to him,” Dan. 4:34, 35; and so will you; and know, that if your spirit be out of frame in your present condition, it would not, at present, be better in any other.

2. Our faith also is highly concerned in the sovereignty of God; for it both obligeth to believe in him, and also affords matter for faith to work upon. To these ends the Lord holds it forth to Abraham: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect,” Gen. 17:1. This it was enabled him to believe he should have a son; even while the deadness of his own body, and of Sarah’s womb wrought strongly against it, Rom. 4:19. This also was that made him so readily assent to the offering up of this son, when he had him. He had as much to say against it, as could well be supposed; for the promise was, that “in Isaac all families of the earth should be blessed;” which promise, and this command, Abraham’s reason could not reconcile. The contradiction would surely have run him down, had not his faith in this great attribute held fast, and guided the reins; suggesting to him, that he who gave Isaac a being from a withered stock was able also to raise him from the dead, Heb. 11: 19. Abraham, therefore, disputes it not; stands not so much as to consider upon it; but up he gets early to do it, Gen. 22:3; and hence he obtained that honourable title to be called, “the friend of God,” James 2:23.

Ye have seen now what Abraham did; “go ye and do likewise;” take hold of God’s sovereignty as your own, en gaged by a covenant of grace, and so to be exerted for your good. Faith gives a propriety in any attribute it looks upon, and draws out the virtues thereof for itself. And therefore, whatever difficulties are in your way, be not disheartened by them, but call in this sovereign power by faith to your help. Remember the ready subjection which all creatures do pay to his word; by which alone (without creatures’ service) he can level the mountains, and make crooked things straight; restrain, alter, invert, and turn upside down the very course of nature, so that which is death in itself shall be life to you. New cords and withes, when touched by his word, are as flax and tow when touched by the fire; iron shall be as straw, and brass as rotten wood. Therefore, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the stakes, of your faith; you cannot believe greater things or better, than God can do for you. Even sin itself, which is the great, and really the only evil; it is his enemy as much as yours; and you may be sure, he would not have suffered its being in the world, if he had not a  power to correct and curb it, yea, and to destroy it too, at his pleasure; take hold of his sovereign strength, and your work is done.

But here, also, a caution or two may be seasonably added, for such reasons as are mixed with them.

1. If death in the pot hath once been healed, and your borrowed axe-head (sunk once past hopes of recovery) brought again to your hand, 2 Kings 6:6, 7; see that remissness grow not upon it, lest at another turn the handle drop after the head. Gather not wild gourds a second time, 2 Kings 4:39, &c., lest your prophet be absent or meal denied you. Presume not to dally with temptations, as Samson did, and then think to go out and shake yourself, as at other times, Judges 16:20. The divine power is too great a thing to be trifled with, or made to serve with the follies of men.

2. Never look on this great attribute of sovereignty without your Mediator. As without him it cannot but be matter of terror and amazement to sinners, it is he only can render it propitious to you. As nothing is pleasing to God, but in and through Christ; so nothing in God is comfortable to men, or for their eternal good, but as it comes to them through him; as waters out of the sea immediately are not potable, unless they be first decocted by the sun, or pass through some vein of earth, to make them congruous to our nature.

I shall here mention two particulars of nearest concernment to us, wherein we are in a special manner to have respect unto the sovereignty of God:—

1. As touching your own condition, (your everlasting condition,) submit to mercy, to sovereign mercy; that is, yield yourself to God without capitulating, or making terms, with him. Those Syrians well understood the meaning of this; they put ropes on their heads, and themselves in the conqueror’s hands, upon an uncertain conjecture: “ Peradventure they will save us alive.” 1 Kings 20:31. So do ye, although ye have but a “may be we shall be hid,” Zeph. 2:3. Mind your duty, and leave the issue to God; believe above hope and against hope: follow God in the dark, as your father Abraham did, not knowing whither he would lead him; thus to do, is to give glory to God. Therefore, “fear the Lord, and obey the voice of his servant;” even then, “when ye are in darkness, and have no light,” Isa. 50:10; namely, of his special favour and love to you in particular. And though never so great discouragements are before you, from the guilt of sins committed, the power of indwelling corruptions, and your present averseness to believing ; and here withal, that faith is the great commandment; let your heart answer: “Is it my duty, (my duty,) to believe? Nay, then I must.” Remember his greatness, his absolute dominion, the uncontrollableness of his matters; that “he hath concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all,” Rom. 11:32; that is, that the salvation of those who shall be saved might appear to be of mercy, and to be so acknowledged: to him therefore commit your cause, and commit it to him as your sovereign Lord, and so leave it with him; and see that you take it not out of his hand again, by your doubting the issue of it; and know, that then is your soul nearest to peace and settlement, when brought to this submission; “Be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live,” Heb. 12:9.

But let not the word be misconstrued; I do not mean by submission, that you should be satisfied under a denial of mercy, on the account of God’s absolute dominion: I cannot think that a necessary term or qualification in your treating with God for salvation; for, (1.) I do not find, that God requires such a submission, as the condition of obtaining mercy; nor that he hath made any promise to give such a submission, in order to that end; nor any instance in scripture of the saints having or endeavouring such a frame of spirit in that business; nor yet, that men are any where taxed for not attaining to it. They are blamed, indeed, and that worthily, for not submitting to the righteousness of God; that is, for not renouncing their own, and flying to that of Christ: and this blame-worthiness you cannot escape, if finding yourself lost and undone, you will not presently run to Christ, without first finding in yourself something that may seem to commend you to him. (2.) Such a submission seems repugnant to God’s revealed will. For, if this be the “will of God, even our sanctification,” that we should believe on his Son, and love him with our whole heart; then it can not be his will, that we should be willing to remain in an unsanctified state, in unbelief and enmity against him; which are the inseparable conjuncts of willingness to be separated from God. (3.) Because the promise of ease and rest is made to the weary and laden coming to Christ; not to a contentedness to be divided from him: and the promise of satisfaction is to your hungering and thirsting after righteousness; not to the cessation of your desire, without the thing which only can satisfy. (4.) Because to be satisfied without obtaining mercy, is to be satisfied with an utter incapacity to glorify the grace of God, and to enjoy communion with him; which are the principal end and duty of men. (5.) It is cross to the genius and concreated principle of the reasonable creature, which is, to seek its own happiness; in any thing short of which it ought not to acquiesce. (6.) Such a submission cannot be requisite in preparatory work; because that would suppose the highest pitch of grace attained (if yet it be a grace, and attainable) before you believe; and, consequently, that it is not a grace out of Christ’s fulness; for ye are supposed to have it before ye go to him. And, therefore, when I say, “ Ye must submit without capitulating or making terms,” my meaning is, ye are not to treat upon terms of your own making, nor propound any thing to God, but what sovereign mercy propounds to you, as the way and means of obtaining your great end: and great reason ye have for this submission; for herein lies your interest; those being, in truth, the only terms by which a lost and sinful creature can be rendered salvable, or capable of being saved, as will further appear in the sequel of this discourse.

I think, with humble submission, that if any point of time may be supposed before the decree, it was then that absolute dominion bore sway; but ever since election came in, it is grace that reigns: not that sovereignty is ceased, but transferred; before, it was in power, but now in grace; in grace, as touching the elect, and in justice, respecting the rest. Grace is the attribute God delights to honour, and all the others are, if I may so speak, as subjects of this; even Christ himself was made a servant, to perform the pleasure of his grace, Isa. 42:1; 49:3. So, then, that you are to submit unto is the good pleasure of God’s will, as held forth in the covenant of grace; undertaking for and perfectly able to save you; and as having his sovereign power engaged to make it good: which seems the scope of that passage in Moses’ prayer for the people, when they had highly provoked God: “Let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken,” &c., Num. 14:17—19. It was to pardon, and still to own them for his people. And to this agree all those scriptures which hold forth the power of God as the ground of faith; as that by which he is able to pardon sin, to subdue iniquity, and to hold your souls in life. You are, therefore, directed, if you will have peace with God, “to take hold of his strength,” Isa. 27:5; which cannot be meant of a contentedness in having that strength put forth to destroy, but as being perfectly able and engaged by his covenant to save you. As to the time when the Lord will manifest his love to you; as also the manner and measure of his dispensing it; the good pleasure of his will is expressly and with all quietness of spirit to be submitted unto; but as to the thing itself, you ought not to be said nay; but do as he did who had power with God, and prevailed: “He wept and made supplication,” Hosea 12:4; but still resolved, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me,” Gen. 32:26.

2. As for the other nearest concernment, touching your children: deal in like manner for them, by submitting them to the same mercy. It is true, that, next to your own personal salvation, there cannot be a greater evidence of God’s love to you, than to choose your children after you; nor any thing more desirable to you: therefore, “command them, and instruct them to keep the way of the Lord,” Gen. 18:19, that he may bring on them the blessing you most desire for them; but be not over solicitous and cast down, because you see not yet the marks of election upon them. The Lord doth not, indeed, bind himself to take all a believer’s children, nor doth he limits himself from taking any others. There is nothing declared touching his purpose to take all the one, lest they should thence take occasion to be remiss in their duty; (which, till conversion, is very natural to us;) nor doth he exclude the children of others; for that might discourage and weaken their hands to that which is good. In this various dispensing of his everlasting love, he is pleased so to reserve his liberty and sovereign prerogative, that he greatly manifests his love to believers, in so frequent choosing of their seed; and the freeness of his grace, in not rejecting wholly the seed of others.

Inference 3.—How happy and sovereignly blessed are those who have an interest in this great and sovereign Lord! Be the earth ever so unquiet, and the tumult of it ever so boisterous and unruly, the Lord is above them. He sits on the waters, as a prince in his chariot, guiding all as he will: he is that great dictator whose word is the law indeed; if he but say, “Come,” “ Go,” “ Do this,” there needs no more. Who would not be the subject of such a prince? and much more his favourite? And yet this high privilege every soul is blessed with, that has in truth taken hold of his covenant; for that takes in all between the two eternities, and eternity it self withal; and the spirit or strength of the whole lies in those few but very compendious words: “I will be your God.” When the Lord would comfort his people to purpose, and put on their eagles’ wings, what a glorious narrative doth he make of his power and sovereign greatness in Isa. 40:12—26! and then tells them, that all is theirs, verse 27. And if “God be yours, all things are yours.” Who and where is he that can supplant you of his blessing? You may rejoice in his highness, the thoughts whereof are matter of terror to other men. After the rehearsal of all the happiness and glory that men or angels are capable of, it shall all be comprised in this, as the original thereof, and sum of the whole: “Happy are they whose God is the Lord,” Psalm 144:15.

Inference 4.—We may see here the reason why God doth sometimes defer to answer the doubts and queries we stick at, and most desire to be resolved about; it is not only to show his sovereignty, but to bring our hearts to a practical acknowledgment of it. Moses was very unwilling to go on his message to Pharaoh; many pretences he had to put it by: whereas the danger he might be in for killing the Egyptian was the bottom objection, though he speaks it not out. Indeed, the men who sought his life were now dead, which, if he had known afore, all those excuses had probably been spared; but the Lord was pleased to conceal it from him, until he had brought him to a full compliance with his will; and then reveals it to him unasked, Exod. 3:11; 4:10, 13, 19. So, likewise, he would not take off his hand from Job, until he had well learned him this lesson, Job 42:2, &c. Say not, therefore, because you have pot returns so soon as you would, “The Lord hath forsaken me, my Lord hath forgotten me,” Isa. 49:14; but follow that great resolution recorded of old, “I will wait upon the Lord, who hideth his face,” at present, “from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him,” Isa. 8:17.

Inference 5.—Let no man, then, who will say, “The Lord he is God,’’ presume to intrench on his sacred royalty, by seeking a reason of his decrees, beyond, or besides, the good pleasure of his will. Even sovereigns of dust will not admit it in subjects, though of the same mould with themselves. It is an imperial secret, “the chief of the ways of God;” it belongs to himself alone to know it, and the know ledge thereof would not profit us now. Besides, there is enough revealed, of great importance to us at present, on which to employ the utmost of our time and strength. By over-grasping we may sprain our hands, and unfit them for service otherwise within their compass, but we gain nothing. Therefore, go not about to fathom this great deep. Who, but one of shallow understanding, would think to measure the sea by handfuls, or to give a demonstrative reason of its various and convertible courses? Remember that you magnify his work, Job 36:24; but lessen it not, by pretending to comprehend it, Eccles. 8:17. “Sanctify the Lord in your hearts, and fear before him,” Isa. 8:13.

Inference VI.—This gives a reason, why men of the largest capacity, for learning and natural understanding, are so mightily puzzled and labyrinthed in spiritual matters; particularly the doctrine of election; why they do so strongly oppose it, and are so hardly reconciled with it. They are not, in truth, subdued to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty: and, therefore, while in discussing those points of faith they judge as their natural optic represents them, they lose both themselves and the truth; which, yet, in some degree, “is made known unto babes,” men of low stature to them, whose spirits the Lord hath subdued to rest contented with what their Father is pleased to tell them: and for the rest, as, namely, the manner and reason of God’s disposements and dispensations, they live by faith in his righteousness; waiting for the day that shall reveal all things; when the tabernacle of God, which yet is in heaven, shall be let down among men, or they taken up into it, and these hidden things of sovereignty shall be more openly known among them.

Lastly.—This doctrine of God’s absolute dominion clears away all that made-ground and rubbish, which the principles of free-will grace do found their election upon; and shows us the only true and proper foundation of scripture election; with those other important truths which hold upon it, or are consequents of it; all which have their head in the sovereignty of God, and are derived thence, as rivers are from the sea; as, through his blessing and grace may appear afterwards. And so I shall close up this first part of the preface with that holy rapture of the Psalmist: “Be thou exalted, Lord, in thine own strength; so will we sing, and praise thy power,” Psalm 21:13. “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength! Bless the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his that do his pleasure! Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion! Bless the Lord, O my soul!” Psalm 103:19-22.

Elisha Coles (1608-1688) was a sovereign grace believer and Christian author. Although he never served as a preacher of the gospel, his writings on Divine Sovereignty and related subjects became a popular work among dissenting Christians.